In 1802, a year after becoming president, Jefferson was accused publicly of fathering several children by slave Sally Hemings.
To help settle historians' debate over the matter, scientists tracked down descendants of both families for DNA testing. In a study published in the journal Nature in November, they reported a match in Y chromosome DNA -- which is passed along mostly unchanged from father to son -- between the descendants of Eston Hemings, Sally Hemings' last child, and of Field Jefferson, the president's paternal uncle.
Adding the DNA evidence to prior circumstantial evidence made Thomas Jefferson the most likely father, although the DNA couldn't rule out other Jeffersons, concluded study author Dr. Eugene Foster, a retired Virginia pathologist.
The Associated Press reported at the time that critics, led by an amateur historian whose wife is a Jefferson descendant, insisted Eston Hemings' father could instead have been Jefferson's brother, Randolph; his cousin, George Jefferson Jr.; or one of Randolph Jefferson's sons.
The historian, Herbert Barger, held a news conference Wednesday in Washington to renew those charges and highlight two letters published in this month's Nature by scientists who agree the DNA is not conclusive proof.
Foster responded in Nature that the title of his study -- "Jefferson fathered slave's last child" -- was misleading because it was too simplistic.
But he defended the study's conclusion: "From the historical knowledge we have, we cannot conclude that ... any other member of the Jefferson family was as likely as Thomas Jefferson to have fathered Eston Hemings."
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